WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats proposed a plan Thursday to place new restrictions on spending for political campaigns, a move intended to blunt the impact of a recent Supreme Court ruling that made it easier for corporations, unions, and other groups to spend heavily on campaign advertisements.
A legislative framework, unveiled by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., calls for a series of small steps. Among them: Banning spending by foreign corporations, requiring company executives to disclose fully their campaign spending, and providing candidates with lower ad rates so that they could respond to any barrage of new ads.
Van Hollen, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said that if nothing is done to mitigate the impact of the Supreme Court ruling "the floodgates to big corporate money that can drown out the voices of American citizens" will open wide.
"We have to move quickly," said Schumer, the chairman of the Senate Rules Committee. "If not, the court ruling will have a disastrous, immediate effect of the 2010 elections."
To soften the court's ruling, the Democratic proposal, among other things, seeks to prevent government contractors from making political expenditures; ban corporations from U.S. campaign spending if the they have foreign ownership of 20 percent or more or if a majority of a corporate board is comprised of foreign nationals; and ban corporations that took federal bailout money from making political expenditures.
Whether the modest plan would pass Congress — or be effective, if passed — is questionable, according to some campaign finance experts.
"This is a solution in search of a problem," said Paul Sherman, a staff attorney for the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm. "I don't think there's any evidence foreign corporations are a problem in American elections. We have no evidence that's corrupted democracy."
Public Citizen, a liberal non-profit watchdog group, called the Democratic plan a good first step but argued that more must be done.
"The legislative framework shows that congressional leaders are very concerned and that they are prepared to take some positive actions," said Craig Holman, Public Citizen's government affairs lobbyist. "But the devil is in the details."
Kenneth Gross, a lawyer and campaign finance expert at the Washington law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, said the proposal would be effective in counteracting the Supreme Court's ruling — perhaps too effective.
"The implications of these proposals would significantly curtail the effects of the (Supreme Court) opinion and would restrict many, if not most, (corporations) from making independent expenditures and may cut too deeply to survive a court challenge," Gross said.
Still, Democrats say something must be done to prevent a potential deluge of money from unions, businesses and interest groups flowing into the 2010 mid-term elections and the 2012 presidential election.
The Supreme Court's 5-4 decision last month in essence struck down a key portion of the 2003 Bipartisan Reform Act, commonly called the McCain-Feingold law after its Senate authors, John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis. The portion in question banned corporate-funded "electioneering communications" close to an election. These are messages that essentially urge a vote for or against a candidate.
The court declared that limits on independent expenditures by corporations and unions violated First Amendment free speech rights. The ruling means more money can be spent by independent actors on federal campaigns. Democrats fear that corporations — which have large treasuries — would wield excessive power over elections, eroding the equality principle of democracy.
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